Today opens the final two weeks of classes for this semester. Once they’re over, there’s only final exams – of which I only have two this semester, so I’ll be done altogether by early on the afternoon of the 14th.
I got the results back today for the two tests I took just before Thanksgiving break; my scores were 88% on the CMJ 103 one (gods damn ambiguous multiple-choice terminology questions!) and ~86% on the ECE 101 one (I may get a point or two back from some omitted work that wasn’t actually omitted, but eluded the instructor’s notice because I did it on the back of the page and forgot to include a TURN OVER FOR WORK-> note on the front – we’re going to talk it over in lab on Wednesday). Either way, I am reasonably pleased. There’s no final exam in CMJ 103, so unless I utterly tank on speech #4, I should have no problems pulling an excellent final grade in that class, and ECE 101… well, that all depends on how I do on the final.
In other news, I got last week’s double homework and attendant quiz in MAT 122 finished with more than a full day to spare – even got some of it done from Chapman, which is a good showing, given the lack of really comprehensive facilities there. There’s one more week’s worth of homework and one quiz to go in that course, then a week of review sessions and the final exam. Again, unless I completely blow the final (which is conceivable), I should be well-positioned to make a respectable showing there.
I should note that two things of major significance remain in ECE 101: the final exam and the robot testing. (There are also three homework assignments left to do, though they’re fairly short compared to some of the monsters we’ve had earlier in the semester.) We have two lab periods left; in one we have to complete and program the robot we’ve been building all semester, and in the other there will be a competition in which the robot must navigate a maze and then travel a set distance (not revealed to us until almost go time) in a straight line. The second actually has potential to be the greater challenge, given that few of the robots, built as they are from recycled parts by fairly cack-handed students, are liable to track all that straight (which makes getting them to travel a set distance and only a set distance not as simple as just saying “proceed forward for $NUMBER motor steps”).
I’m a little nervous about the robot competition. For one thing, I don’t particularly like competitions in general; for another, Let’s Call Him Matt and I still aren’t finished building ours. We haven’t slacked off, particularly, but we’re not very speedy builders, and we know for a fact that two of our robot’s four photosensors aren’t working. We’ve known that for months, actually, but when we first discovered it the TAs said, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll have a chance to fix those later.” Well, it’s later, and they’re not fixed. Plus, there’s a certain amount of creative programming required (and I strongly suspect the sample code we’ve been given has some deliberate mistakes in it to force us to debug as we go), and – as we have previously established here – I am crap at that.
So I dunno. I don’t think you actually fail the course if your robot doesn’t perform very well, but I think it does at least have to work…
Oh, and the weather has been so lousy this fall that we’re still not finished with all the observations we’re on the hook for in AST 110, which means tonight – which is forecast to be clear and bloody freezing – we’re up. Which is why I’m in the library on campus blogging, waiting for it to be 8 PM so I can get my frostbite on. On the other hand, this late in the year, Orion will actually be above the horizon before the session is over, so I can get my favorite asterism on the board after all. (And then I get to drive to Moonbase Dad in a car whose heater controls packed up earlier today! Hooray the Mini’s ongoing electronic senility!)
I’ve got more to say about AST 110-0990, but I’ll save that for an after-semester postmortem.
(Where the hell is all that noise coming from? It sounds like a high school cafeteria in here. This is a library, for Christ’s sake. Kids these days.)
And by “spring” I actually mean winter, but the University will persist in calling it the spring semester.
Once again I have been unable to secure even one day off, because that math class is only offered MWF and MET 121 is only offered TTh. And look at that Wednesday! A, why is that class at 5 in the afternoon, and B, what am I supposed to do with myself for five and a half hours? (And C, yes, you’re reading that right, IT IS A BLOODY DAMNED PROGRAMMING CLASS, it turns out there’s at least one in the curriculum of EVERY MAJOR I CONSIDERED during last week’s Vocational Emergency.)
Well, OK, I know exactly what I’ll probably doing for most of that time. Getting lunch and then being planetarium computer monkey. But man, it’s going to be a struggle getting motivated to show up for math on Fridays. I’ll be spending more than twice as long in the car as I am in class!
On the plus side, they all look interesting. On the minus side, there’s a train wreck coming next school year, because switching majors mid-year means I’m out of phase with the introductory Technical Physics courses, which are prereqs for a number of things I should be taking in year 2. That means I’ll be taking them instead, and the things they’re prereqs for in year 3, and so on. But, like I told the lady in the School of Engineering Tech office, I’ve effectively been delaying graduation for the last 18 years, so another one’s probably not going to kill me as long as my financial aid doesn’t get cut off.
Which it might do, actually, now that the Heartless Party (as opposed to the Feckless Party) is back in command of Congress and a man who has said that the University of Maine System will have to “justify its existence” is going to be governor. But one crisis at a time.
Tonight’s crisis: I have an exam in CMJ 103 tomorrow that I can’t seem to settle my head down and study for, because of… well, I don’t even want to explain what because of, it’ll just get me riled up again. It has to do with my mother, her husband, and cars. Let’s leave it at that. For now, I’m thinking about going to bed and trying again in the morning, before driving down and not picking up the MINI from the shop for the… what… 16th day since repairs were completed.
Now that you’ve read the last couple of posts and thought, God, he can whine, can’t he?, permit me to share with you a rare piece of good news.
Every year, the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine puts on a little do at the end of the fall semester. At this do, which is called the Oak Awards, one student from each section of CMJ 103 Fundamentals of Public Communication (and there are several of those, because it’s a course everyone in the university has to pass in order to graduate) is selected by that section’s instructor to deliver one of the two persuasive speeches he or she has prepared for class. Everyone else who’s taken CMJ 103 that semester is offered a few points of extra credit to attend, and most of the CMJ faculty are there, so I’m told they get a pretty respectable crowd. Certainly a bigger one than the speeches involved would originally have been delivered to, since the sections are around 20 students apiece.
When I got my outline and grade back for my first persuasive, "Man Must Explore", it had a note from the instructor on the back of the outline inviting me to be Section 003’s delegate to this year’s Oak Awards. It means sticking around for a few hours longer on the last Friday of regular classes than I would otherwise have had to, and delivering one of my speeches (either "Man Must Explore" or the as-yet untitled final one I’m working on now) to a much larger crowd than it was developed for, but it’s an honor and there’s a fairly substantial cash prize involved for whoever wins the thing.
Not bad for an engineering student…
So. As you’re probably aware from earlier traffic – ha! See what I did there? – I’m commuting in my school adventures. I live about 70 miles from the University, once you take into account all the fiddling around on access roads and whatnot that it takes to get from my front door to the parking lot at school. Once the time spent on those access roads and so on is taken into account as well, it’s about an hour and a half each way.
You might be thinking at this point that I ought to be getting quite tired of that by now. And I am! But not entirely because of the driving itself. No, part of the reason for my fatigue has to do with the equipment I have to work with.
For most of this semester, I’ve had regular access to three cars, which sounds more than adequate given that I have only one ass, be it ever so sizeable, to haul back and forth. They are:
1) My own 1997 Saab 900S convertible. This is a fine car which has served me well for the nearly ten years I’ve owned it, and to which I’m quite attached, but it’s getting old and arthritic now and has developed a couple of problems. One is that the roof leaks, but in a particularly strange and esoteric way that has stumped the service departments of three Saab dealerships. Another is that the clutch has begun packing up, probably because they were cable-operated in 1997 and the cable is wearing out. This means it doesn’t reliably disengage with the pedal all the way to the floor, which makes shifting into certain gears e.g. reverse somewhat… noisy.
2) My mother’s 2003 MINI Cooper. Again, a fine car, and very entertaining to drive. On the other hand, the ride is a bit rock-hard, it doesn’t have cruise control, and it has recently suffered the single strangest design-flaw-inflicted injury I’ve ever personally known a car to have. A few weeks ago, as I was driving home in the pouring rain after dark, the electrical system went into complete meltdown, causing the absolute strangest behavior I’ve ever seen an automobile exhibit – for instance, a complete disregard for the position or even presence of the ignition key, and, a bit more immediately worrisome on the Interstate at night in the rain, a disinclination to have the headlights and the windshield wipers engaged at the same time. This turned out to have been caused by – I’m not making this up – a moon roof drain which was so routed that, if the internal tubing became disconnected, all the water it should’ve been conveying to a port on the underside of the car was instead directed as if by design to the car’s central fuse box. Repairs have just been completed, in time for the car to be removed from the equation completely in a little while. More on this in a bit.
3) My father’s 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix. This car is the most mechanically reliable of the three, but makes up for it by being the least economical and least comfortable. The ride is better than the MINI’s, but the cabin geometry is woeful. In an effort to make it sporty and rakish, Pontiac’s designers gave it an extremely low roofline, which makes it difficult to get into and out of and means that, in a side impact, the driver’s head will be smashed against the beam running along the top of his door window, which is padded, but in the same way as the arms of an office chair. Also, until last Saturday, the rear struts were worn out and leaking, which means that the rear tires are now roughly octagonal. Now that the struts have been replaced, the noise and vibration they create must be experienced to be believed. Dad, ever an economy-minded soul when it comes to automobile parts*, assures me that shortly we will take all four of them off and replace them – with two brand new snow tires on the front and two that – and I’m quoting – "probably have one more season in them" on the rear.
So we have one car that appears reliable but is costly to run and uncomfortable (and which Dad would really like back because it still gets better mileage than the other vehicle he’s driving while I have the Pontiac), one that’s entering that end-of-life stage when things start to go wrong in ways that aren’t easily diagnosed, let alone remedied, and one that’s probably fine now that it’s been to rehab for its drinking problem, but is being sold. Why, you might wonder, would my mother sell what is probably, on its face, the best of my three options for school transport? Well, she isn’t really. See, it’s actually in her husband’s name owing to some abstruse technicality of the insurance or something, and just yesterday I learned that he has decided, unilaterally and without consultation, to sell it and buy a pickup truck for himself. In his plan, Mom can drive the hideous Cadillac station wagon he bought last year and then decided he didn’t want, and which has now depreciated so staggeringly it’d actually be more financially rewarding to burn it for the insurance money, get caught, and do the jail time than try to sell it or trade it in. And I can, I don’t know, walk, I guess.
I’ve been confronting this conundrum for weeks, considering what would be the best way to handle it, and finally I decided that what I needed to do was track down something well-made, old enough that it wouldn’t be too expensive but still a few years away from senescence, not too thirsty, and – most importantly – equipped with all-wheel-drive to get me through the long, long years of commuting to school that I have ahead of me before I can, allegedly, get a proper job and buy that new Jag I’ve been promising myself. The only problem there was that I had no income, and it’s difficult to pay for a car – even a cheap old one – without one. So I shelved that plan a couple of weeks ago and resigned myself to the merry-go-round.
But then, out of the blue early last week, I got an email from the Student Aid office saying, in effect, "Hey, remember how we told you you weren’t eligible for workstudy? We lied, here, have some. Good luck getting a job on campus with four weeks to go in the semester, one of which is mostly Thanksgiving break."
Hmm, I thought, and poked around the Student Employment office’s website to see if there were any workstudy reqs still open at this time of the year. And lo, there were a few, one of which was at the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium. Now, I like a planetarium. I like a planetarium quite a lot. The idea of being a planetarium operator appeals to me the way little kids used to want to be locomotive drivers. So I fired off an application to that one like a shot. A quick mental calculation of the pay scale advertised told me that I could easily afford a modest (and I’m talking very modest) car payment on that sort of income, if I got the job.
And I did. Well, sort of. I got a job at the planetarium. Unfortunately – and this is where the compound irony comes into it – the regular shows at the Jordan are on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. When I’m nowhere near campus. So I didn’t get the job of presenter. Instead, I started today as the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium’s student computer tech III.
Yes. That’s right. After all these years and all these attempts to get away from anything to do with the field, I’m the PC support monkey. I spent this afternoon reinstalling device drivers in an effort – successful, I might point out – to help one of the planetarium office’s PCs recover from an ill-advised printer install and regain its ability to write CDs and recognize USB flash drives.
Still, I thought, OK, that’s a disappointment in your life, but on the other hand, you’ll at least be able to get out of this car hole now. Except that’s not the case either, because it turns out that, even in the eyes of the university’s own credit union, workstudy is not employment enough to constitute eligibility for even a small car loan. Six grand, say, over 48 months at 12 percent – right around $160 a month? Easily done according to the pay scale figures (or even, and I’ve worked this out as well, with the overrun on a couple of semesters’ worth of financial aid), but sorry, it’s just not on.
So there we are. I have a job I don’t particularly want, which I was offered because I don’t qualify for the job I did want because I’m a commuter, but which I took anyway thinking it would at least help me to make the commute more tolerable, only to discover that it won’t. And that’s why this long-winded whinge is called "Compound Irony".
* and anything else
Hi! Um. There’s been a lot going on the last little while. Where to start?
First, I suppose, with a Most Recent Progress report. I mentioned an upcoming math exam and my third CMJ 103 speech in the last couple of posts, so let’s go over those first.
The speech received almost full marks; I got dinged slightly for going over time and for completely omitting visual aids, having somehow failed to notice that the assignment called for at least one. That won’t be a problem in speech #4, as I’ve already got a plan for at least six.
In mathland, things went… not quite so well, but at least better than I thought they’d gone when I left the exam. Seventy-three percent is not a spectacular grade, but it is a passing one, and my quiz and homework averages remain strong. Couple that with my 83% on the first exam and I can still manage a respectable showing in MAT 122 with a decent performance on the final. (In fact, if the calculations I just did using a spreadsheet the instructor provided are correct, I’m currently averaging about 84 for the course as a whole, which I will certainly take.)
I’m essentially finished with AST 110, having completed all but a handful of questions in the online assessments in a fit of completionism over the weekend. The ones I’m missing are predicated on owning a copy of the AST 109 textbook, which is a bit of a problem, since I took that class in 1993. I don’t still have my copy of the textbook handy, and even if I did it would be the wrong book. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that. Obviously buying a copy of the textbook for a class that I’m not taking in order to answer a handful of questions in a single quiz on an online course is absurd. They might have a copy handy in the university library; I meant to check on that today, but forgot. Thanks to the weather, we haven’t had an observing session on Monday in at least a month; we still need at least one more to reach the target number of observed objects, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate before the end of the semester, which is really not that far away now, the targets will be adjusted accordingly so we don’t all get screwed by Forces Beyond Our Control. Which is nice of them.
ECE 101 proceeds. Let’s Call Him Matt and I are still wire-wrapping on our robot in lab where the rest of our lab group has moved on to messing around with the motors, and the lecture portion of the course has moved into the rudimentary C programming necessary to make the robot work, which fills me with loathing and dismay. I knew I hated C, but I had forgotten just how much.
Which brings me neatly around to the fact that I’ve changed major. After meeting with a number of persons in different departments last week, discussing things with my father, and doing a fair bit of soul-searching, I filed the paperwork last Friday to change from EE (in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) to Mechanical Engineering Technology (in the School of Engineering Technology), with the possibility, once I meet with my new ET advisor, of doubling up with Electrical Engineering Technology down the line.
I did this for a number of reasons which don’t easily bear articulating, as I discovered while fumbling witlessly through an exit interview with the chair of the ECE department this afternoon. Part of it does have to do with my hatred of C in particular and computer programming in general, although, as Prof. Musavi pointed out during our talk, everyone is doing everything with computers nowadays and you can’t study any technical field without having to do some. Even in MET, to my utter facepalming dismay, there is a computer programming class required next semester, though I believe the one MET students have to take is in Visual BASIC, not C or – believe it or not, the straight Mechanical Engineering students still have to take this – FORTRAN. Part of it is because I think working with machine tools and making metal things might be more interesting and less vague than what I’m seeing in the intro electrical material. And part of it is because power engineering – the thing in engineering that really interests me, if anything in the field can genuinely be said to do so – is sort of a hybrid of mechanical and electrical, and is mostly being pursued on the Engineering Technology side of the fence, leaving the ECE department to work primarily with computers, microelectronics, nanoelectronics, and other things that don’t particularly turn me on.
He didn’t come right out and say it in so many words, but it was fairly apparent that Prof. Musavi thinks I’m basically just bitching out. Engineering Tech has easier math requirements and is a lot less theoretical than straight-up engineering, at least at UMaine, and it’s evident that most of the engineering faculty view it as a jumped-up vocational-technology program. Which it is, to be honest; it started as a two-year associate-degree program back in the ’70s and evolved into its current four-year form more or less by default, as the university’s mainstream engineering program became more heavily academic and research-focused. Both Prof. Musavi and the SET director, Dr. Dunning, have noted to me during this process that if you go for an ET degree, you can basically forget about graduate school.
Which I did consider during my deliberations on the change, but, well… as my father pointed out with all the bluntness that makes him simultaneously such a social trial and a valued source of input, is that even on at my age? I’d be approaching 50 by the time I burst onto the job search scene as a newly minted PhD. How ridiculous is that?
What Dr. Dunning didn’t mention while we were meeting – and what Prof. Musavi only mentioned in a casual sort of by-the-way fashion after the paperwork was filed and the die was cast – is that, if you have an ET degree, you can also basically forget about qualifying for a Professional Engineer license in most states. The State of Maine’s licensure board treats UMaine ET graduates the same as regular engineering grads, but those of most other states view the ET program as… well, as a jumped-up voke-tech program. People Who Bitched Out of Calculus III Need Not Apply.
I’m not saying it absolutely would have changed my decision if I had known that? But it would have been nice if someone had mentioned it at any point before that of no return.
Ah, well, hell with it. I’m laying even odds I piss off back to the liberal arts where I belong at some point in the next calendar year anyway, even though my mother will probably smother me in my sleep if I do. (It’s refreshingly straightforward, if a bit less than unconditionally supportive, to have one’s parents tell one to stick with a spiritually unrewarding but documentably lucrative field of study because they’re getting old and one will have to pay for their upkeep fairly soon.)
So, uh. That’s how I spent my last week or so. There was another thing, too, but that’s its own convoluted and somewhat bitchy story, so it should get its own post with its own tags and whatnot.
But only on the blog. Coursework is currently up to date.
I’ll have some more things to share later in the week. In the meantime, here’s CMJ 103 speech no. 3, "Man Must Explore". (Please excuse the bit near the end where I get the century wrong. Er, and the fact that my blogging tool is so clever it can’t recognize it when I do the HTML for a simple anchor link by hand. WTF.)
The second MAT 122 exam is coming up on Wednesday evening (why they schedule these things from 6 to 8 PM I really couldn’t tell you). Oddly, I have so far found the material we’ve covered since the first exam to be easier than what we did in the first section. OK, yes, I did fall down rather badly on this week’s quiz, but that’s because I got complacent and tried to intuit transformations to the graphs of trigonometric functions on the fly rather than actually working them out. That works fine with sine and cosine graphs, but not so well for secant/cosecant and really not so much with tangent/cotangent. Result: that’ll be the quiz that gets thrown out at the end of the semester, and a lesson is learned.
Apart from that little difficulty, I’m feeling more sanguine about this exam than the first one. On the other hand, I managed to pull an 83% on that one despite a feeling of utter impending doom upon leaving the exam room, so what do I know about taking tests? At any rate, there’s a review session in the morning, and then I must rush home and vote. This will probably be more futile than the math review session, since – as usual – no one is running who I particularly think should be holding public office in the first place – but it must be done.
Over in ECE 101, things are… odd. We just finished what Andy insists was the hardest part of the course, which I suppose is the good news (although this week’s homework, which Andy says is easier than last week’s, might as well be in Amharic as far as I’m concerned, so don’t go by me). The bad news is, that means we’re on the doorstep of the part of the course that’s all C programming. The last time I tried to program in C, the year started with a 1 and the first President Bush (remember him?) was running for re-election. And it sucked. It sucked so much I abandoned computer science rather than ever have to do it again, only to discover, to my considerable dismay, that it’s followed me to electrical engineering (all the CS kiddies program in Java now). I really don’t want to do that again.
But really, I should feel fortunate, I suppose. I mean, I only have to come up with enough C to get our maze robot to work, and perhaps my lab partner – who started out as a computer engineering major and has already changed his major to computer science – will do some of that. It’s next semester that I’ll have to take an entire course in the damn thing, ’cause that’s when ECE 177, Introduction to Programming for Engineers, arrives. And, as I may have previously mentioned, it doesn’t matter if you’re not a CE major, or want nothing to do with computer programming ever again; in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, we all float down here.
In the short term, though, maybe the programming section will re-engage Let’s Call Him Matt a little. Since he informed me a couple of lab sessions ago that a) physics sucks b) wire-wrapping sucks and c) Wednesdays suck (and for the record I can’t really argue with any of those), and that as a result he’s changed his major, his participation has been a bit… desultory. He doesn’t technically need ECE 101 any more; it’s not going to do him a lick of good as regards his eventual degree in computer science. He’s still trying to finish it, because this late in the semester it’ll still affect his GPA, but other than that it’s not that important. He’s not explicitly punting, for which I am grateful, but he’s certainly neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed.
I sympathize. His Wednesday schedule is such that by the time he arrives for our three-hour lab at 2 PM, he’s been going since 9 AM, and he still has one more class to go to before he’s done for the day at 8 PM. Judging by the state of him when he gets to lab, he doesn’t seem to have time for lunch, either, as he’s always starving. I had a Wednesday that looked like that myself, at the start of the semester, but I dropped the class that would’ve had me in at 9 and out at 8 because, well, I had the leisure to do it. I’m carrying the bare minimum of credit hours required to maintain full-time student classification, because unlike most of these kids, I’m not really fussed about finishing in four years. It’s rather liberating. I can see where it wouldn’t be an option if you’ve got your parents to answer to, though.
Anyway, I wish Let’s Call Him Matt well in his new field, and I hope it’s what he’s looking for and that the reduced science requirement means he no longer has to take any sucky physics courses. (I’m scheduled for the one that’s kicking his ass this semester, next semester.) I just hope he doesn’t check out entirely before the semester’s over, ’cause I’m a fairly slow worker and, left to do it all myself, would probably have our robot working in time for graduation.
Speaking of scheduling for next semester, I mentioned last time that I’ve done it on the school’s "wish list" course reg tool (since I can’t actually register until the 10th). Well, it’s not shot day +1 now, and I can tell you that I still don’t much like what I see there. Picking up only the three courses required on Semester 2 of the current EE curriculum (for a minimum 12-credit load again), I’m still on campus a lot more than I have to be in this 12-credit semester, for some odd reason. Worse, I couldn’t arrange for any blank days during the week at all, something I very much wanted in the winter semester, what with every day I’m on campus representing a 120-mile round trip, 4-6 gallons of gas, and all. But no, it appears there’s no way to take MAT 126 that doesn’t require appearing on campus every single day. Feh.
(And why does PHY 121, Physics for Engineers I, start at 5 PM? Has the prof got a day job or something?)
I remain very tempted to change programs myself, though not until semester’s end, but I’m not sure where to go. EET is a possibility, as is ME, though in both cases there are introductory classes that are only offered in the fall semester, so I’d spend the spring taking electives (which wouldn’t be so bad, actually) and then basically start over again next fall. And there’s still part of me that would very much like to just get the hell away from anything that requires advanced math, but that part has so far been stayed by the grim realities of the graduate employment picture in the humanities these days.
I know I keep coming back to this subject here, and I apologize for that, but it’s because I keep circling back to it in my mind as I consider my future. Because it’s a real Scylla/Charybdis sort of situation for me, knowing that I have the ability to pursue a technical career, but doubting whether I have the passion for it. You know all the hearts-and-flowers talk high school guidance counselors give you about following your heart and money isn’t everything? If my 19 years stumbling around in the private sector without any real qualifications taught me anything, it’s that, uh, yeah, actually, it kind of is. And so I eye the exit wistfully but know that, practically speaking, I’m better off doing something that doesn’t really turn me on.